Memory and PTSD: how relationships can be disrupted
- Category: Symptoms
Memory unrecognized can draw us through a psychic tunnel leading to chaos
Memory is tricky. We tend to think of memory as pictures in our mind with or without accompanying feelings.
But we can remember with feelings and no pictures. We can remember with pictures and no feelings.
In the case of PTSD a goal is to remember without experiencing the feelings again, not as if the memory is something we are experiencing fully in the now.
But also, in passionate and sometimes destructive arguments we can relive feelings without knowing they come from a memory beyond our consciousness. This can damage our relationships and our lives.
Memory or Soul Mate?
If you meet a person and feel an instant attraction, even what feels like floods of love and trust, it's likely you are remembering rather than discovering a soul mate. Those loving feelings are within you and unattached to a visual memory. They float below the surface of your psyche looking for an experience to grab hold of. When someone has the right characteristics to draw those feelings you are entranced. You can be plunged into a relationship based on your real feelings from the past without being capable of perceiving or caring for yourself with the stranger you think you know.
Memory that Disrupts a Loving Relationship
Someone you love who loves you questions the value of an object you own and insist on keeping in your shared apartment. You become furious and heartbroken that your partner doesn't appreciate the value this object has in your heart. Your partner comes up with logical explanations: It's too big for the room. The colors are harsh compared to the muted tones you both agreed you wanted. It's uncomfortable. Your partner would like something on more simple lines.
You become desperate and have trouble speaking. You are outraged at this response. You doubt the relationship. You are heartbroken that so little understanding exists. You believe more situations like this will probably happen soon. You cascade into the certainty of catastrophe.
This reaction doesn't make sense in the present moment of reality. You may even know it. But your feelings are so strong that you seriously jeopardize your relationship. This is a welling up of memory and associations that are below your conscious awareness. Perhaps you were abused or bullied as a child and had no power to protect yourself or seek a safe haven. This object is something you brought into your life independently based on your personal power and choice. Your partner questions it. That means, to you, that your personal power and choice is threatened and about to be removed.
You are overwhelmed with emotional memories of bullying, powerlessness, and the lack of empathy that made your pain even more acute. You remember the feeling of having no place where you could be safe. You remember feeling and knowing your caretaker was dangerous and that you could do nothing about it.
But now, in this exchange with your partner, you only remember the feelings of your past. You don’t have an awareness of the events, the pictures, the story, of your past lived experience.
You don't know you are caught in a memory while your partner is trying to be logical in the here and now.
This is a situation that needs to be sorted out in psychotherapy. It doesn't mean you are mentally ill. It means you are lost in a memory with no way to recognize it or get out of it or bring yourself to the present.
With a psychotherapist who appreciates this kind of emotional memory and the havoc it can play in your life, resolution can develop. You can learn to feel and recognize memory without letting it disrupt your life now.
Joanna is a psychotherapist in private practice serving California, Arizona, Florida, Utah and Oregon. All appointments are virtual. Serving adults only with a minimum age of 25. Seniors welcome.
Author of Healing Your Hungry Heart: recovering from your eating disorder.